Wearing his USC sweatshirt in the pre-dawn drizzle, Micah Scheindlin was working on three hours sleep and a cereal bar. The USC College senior was among hundreds of students volunteering for the rally on campus Friday attended by the 44th president of the United States.
As crowds grew along Jefferson Boulevard, eventually winding up and down 34th Street, up Vermont Avenue to Exposition Boulevard, Scheindlin tried to shepherd the masses toward the metal detectors and into the event.
“This is exhausting and exhilarating,” said Scheindlin, a USC College Democrats official. “The president will be here very soon.”
Several hours later, Scheindlin stood on a platform set up at Doheny Memorial Library, behind each speaker as he or she stepped behind the podium one by one.
Photos by Erik Peterson and Pamela J. Johnson.
As it turned out, exhausted and exhilarated were two themes that emerged during the rally. Speaking at the event, Oscar-winning actor Jaime Foxx recalled when a questioner during a recent CNBC townhall broadcast told Obama, “Quite frankly, I’m exhausted. Exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for.”
“Can you believe that?” Foxx asked the crowd. “He hasn’t been in office two years. So right now, we want to send a message that we’re not exhausted.”
Foxx had the throng of thousands chanting, “We’re not exhausted! We’re not exhausted! We’re not exhausted!”
When Obama took the podium, the audience, most of whom had waited in lines for at least five hours, exploded in cheers, some screaming, “I love you!”
“I love you back!” Obama hollered.
Obama made an analogy, comparing the country to a car, in reference to the upcoming election starting with, “Republicans drove the car into the ditch.
“Somehow they were able to walk away from the accident but they didn’t get the car out of the ditch,” Obama said. “So me and Barbara (Boxer) and Jerry (Brown) and Antonio (Villaraigosa), we all put on our boots, and we climbed down into the ditch. And it’s hot down there, flies are down there, we’re sweating but we’re pushing. We’re pushing to get the car out of the ditch.
“And even though Barbara Boxer is small she’s pushing too. And as we’re pushing the Republicans are all standing there at the top of the ditch. We ask them, ‘Why don’t you come down and help?’ And they say, ‘No, that’s alright.’ Then they kick some dirt down into the ditch.
“They’re sipping on a Slurpee and fanning themselves. ‘You’re not pushing hard enough,’ they say. ‘You’re not pushing the right way.’ Yet despite all that, we still get the car out of the ditch.”
The crowd cheered.
“It’s finally on level ground,” Obama said. “The car’s a little banged up. It’s going to have to go to the body shop. It needs a tune up but it’s on level ground, it’s running. We’re in the right direction, we’re ready to move forward and suddenly, we get this tap on our shoulder and look back. And who is it? It’s the Republicans. And they say we want the keys back. And we’ve got to tell them you can’t have the keys back.”
The crowd screamed.
“You can ride with us, but you’ve got to be in the back seat because you don’t know how to drive,” Obama said. “Ever notice when you want to go forward what do you do? You put your car in D. You want to go back what do you do you put it in R.”
The crowd went wild.
“We want to go forward,” Obama said.
Scheindlin, an American studies and ethnicity major, said the hard work was worth the effort. He said it felt surreal when Obama finally appeared and even more so when the president approached him and shook his hand.
“Yeah, I got no sleep; yeah, I put miles on my shoes, but here’s the president of the United States right in front of me,” he said. “We’re never going to get to the point where we’re too exhausted. We’re never going to stop.”
A few days earlier, on Wednesday night, Scheindlin visited Kerman Maddox’s “Campaign Elections and Politics” class, where a representative for Organizing for America (OFA) discussed the upcoming visit with undergraduates.
“We have a historical event taking place Friday here on campus,” Maddox, a College lecturer, told his class. “There are many colleges in Southern California, so why is the president of the United States coming to USC?”
“USC is the most influential college in Southern California,” ventured one student.
Student Daniel Lopez had a more involved response.
“USC is located in a neighborhood that is very minority-driven,” Lopez said. “There’re large Latino and African American communities, which are Obama’s base. Also, USC is centrally located in Los Angeles, so he can draw people from Pasadena, people from the Westside and from the South Bay.”
Lars Thorn from the OFA spoke to his class about participating in the political process. Maddox assigned his class to write about their observations of the rally.
“If I were a college student, I would give my left arm for this kind of opportunity,” said Maddox, referring to the chance to be involved in an on-campus rally attended by the president. “This is something these students will remember for the rest of their lives. It’s a story they’ll tell their kids.”
Many of Maddox’s students did end up volunteering during the event. Jonathan Cousimano, a political science junior in the College, was selected to drive in the president’s motorcade. Drivers got to meet the president and shake his hand, but that’s not why Cousimano volunteered.
“This is my future; my children’s future,” Cousimano said of the Nov. 2 election’s prevailing party. “A lot of young people simply don’t care. I’ve heard them say, ‘It’s only the mid-term elections.’ But I like having a voice.”
In Christian Grose’s “Presidents and the Presidency” class, the assistant professor in the College was delivering a PowerPoint presentation about when presidents make public appeals. He was discussing the fact that President Obama had been traveling more lately, campaigning for candidates before the mid-term elections.
A student on his laptop blurted: “Obama’s coming to USC!”
“There was a buzz throughout the room for a few minutes,” Grose said. “Everyone was really excited.”
Grose promptly assigned each student to write a one-page analysis of Obama’s speech, focusing on public policies.
Anthony Kammas, assistant professor of political science in the College, is having his students post their perceptions of the rally on the USC Political Science Undergraduate Association’s Facebook page. The best responses will be published in the association’s upcoming journal.
“My students spend all this time reading about politics and the big ideas.” Kammas said. “And now here’s the big person on campus. It doesn’t matter if they agree with his policies, they’re engaging in person with their political leader.”
Senior Andrenna Hidalgo, a member of USC College Republicans, was excited about the rally, but for a different reason than most Democrats.
“The fact that he came here to California shows how close the governor and senate races are,” Hidalgo said. “He’s sending a signal that that the races are highly contested and he’s trying to bring back his momentum. He wouldn’t have been here if Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina weren’t such a threat.”
Scheindlin noted that Obama's personality seemed to transcend party lines.
"He's incredibly charismatic," he said. "There's no better adjective to describe him."
Read more about the event at http://uscnews.usc.edu/university/president_obama_speaks_at_usc.html